It is the world’s least visited, least populated continent. On the best day it is extremely difficult to reach. And yet the allure of the unknown and the desire to set foot on every continent have encouraged travelers to try and find their way to the South Pole.
Yet Antarctica is difficult for the world’s obsessive catalogers to classify. It’s not a country, so can you cross it off your bucket list? Who controls it? If it had a capital, where would it be? What would the native language be?
A national flag for a landless place
These were some of the questions Evan Townsend asked himself when he signed up for the first of two stints at McMurdo Station, the US-run base in Antarctica.
Townsend, an elementary school teacher in Boston, knew he had a strict baggage allowance when he went to Antarctica to work as a support staff member — everyone is limited to 85 pounds, he says, some clothes, toiletries, medicines, electronics, and anything else they want. or need during their stay.
One day, Townsend and a few colleagues took the Pride flag outside and took pictures of themselves to post on social media. The photos eventually became an international story, with many news outlets saying the outing was Antarctica’s first-ever Pride parade.
“That’s when I realized the power of flags,” Townsend says. “On the one hand, I’m completely isolated at the end of the earth. And on the other, I’m part of this global community.”
Despite having no background in design, Townsend identifies as an old “flag geek” and started toying with the idea of creating a flag to represent Antarctica.
“I definitely wanted it to be a neutral flag,” Townsend says. “It’s a different design, it’s a different color, just to make sure it’s not affiliated with any particular group or nationality. I wanted it to be something with a lot of symbolism, but it was so simple that perception of Antarctica and their own understanding of the continent to the flag.”
Swedish nurse Johanna Davidsson didn’t go to the South Pole to set a world record, but she ran away with it anyway.
The name of the flag project, True South, also has its own meaning.
“‘True south’ literally means the direction towards the geographic south pole, as opposed to magnetic south which would lead to the magnetic south pole,” explains Townsend. “it is meant to represent the shared goals and values upon which the Antarctic community can orient itself.”
And Townsend does not intend to trademark or copyright the design of the flag because he believes it should belong to the whole world.
“The best flags are flags that get their meaning and power from the people who carry them,” he adds.
Who is actually in charge here?
Townsend is just one of many people around the world who are fixated on Antarctica, even if they never get to visit and see the place for themselves.
So, what about the southernmost continent that people keep entering?
In a world more interconnected than ever, Antarctica remains one of the few places most people don’t know about.
The only permanent installations are a handful of science stations, employing only scientists and their support staff — a term that includes everyone from chefs and maintenance personnel to electricians and airport operators.
It is normal for people to multitask. Townsend worked in food service during his tenure, as a bartender and as a craft room manager. At its peak, the number of human Antarctic inhabitants is about 10,000.
One of the points on which they agreed was that Antarctica “would be used only for peaceful purposes” and that science would be at the forefront of any development or settlement there. Members of the military are allowed to be there, but only in support roles.
Although few people live there, the influence of Antarctica is enormous. The continent has shrunk due to climate change. And despite the treaty’s existence, world politics has changed and new power players – namely China – have appeared in Antarctica.
The True South flag flies next to the flags of the original 12 Antarctic Treaty signatories at the ceremonial South Pole.
Courtesy of Lisa Minelli/True South
Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at the University of London, is the author of several books on the polar regions, most recently “The Arctic: A Very Short Introduction” published in June 2021.
“It’s just getting stuff out of Antarctica. Information, ice, resources like seals and whales and fish,” he says. “The vulnerability of Antarctica represents, I think, the vulnerability of the wider world.”
While climate change has the greatest impact on Antarctica, there is another important factor that will only become more important as the pandemic subsides: tourism.
The Future of the Seventh Continent
Currently, the United States is the largest source of Antarctic tourism, but China is rapidly rising to second place and Dodds believes it will top the list within a decade.
Just as nations compete for power with military bases and political maneuvers, Antarctica has become another place where their rivalries — and fears — can be played out.
“No one can answer the question of who owns Antarctica,” Dodds says.
“I think Antarctica essentially represents not only the idealism that the treaty represents, but it also represents the supreme contradictory nature of humanity in general. So for all the things we want to celebrate in Antarctica, there’s also the ugliness of the humanity.”
He points to some great successes: Antarctica was the first continent to be completely free of nuclear weapons. It has also been demilitarized.
Another example of the continent’s potential for beauty and unity? The True South flag, which Dodds admires.
“(It) is a well-intentioned reminder that Antarctica is a miracle. Antarctica should represent the very best in all of us.”